Livestock farmers are faced with a trade-off known as the “climate killer conundrum”: On larger farms, which are more humane for animal rearing, greenhouse gas emissions are often higher. More space to roam means more space for cattle to urinate, much of which goes uncollected. And when the ammonia in that waste mixes with soil, it’s released into the air as nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas.
A new study suggests that farmers may not have to choose between the environment and letting their cattle roam—that is, if they’re willing to potty-train them. The study’s scientists successfully trained calves, just like human toddlers, to use toilets to pee, limiting urine to one area instead of encouraging “indiscriminate voiding of excreta.” They suggest that if done on a wider scale, this could reduce the release of toxic gases that are harmful to the environment while simultaneously keeping farms cleaner and reducing animal infections.
The premise of the toilet system is that farmers can more easily and efficiently collect waste and treat it to make it safe for the environment, versus having to scope out an entire farm. That could be significant, since a single cow can produce 8 gallons of urine (and about 65 pounds of feces) per day. Agriculture is the world’s biggest source of ammonia, and livestock farming is responsible for about half.
The scientists tapped into the “cognitive capabilities” of cows, reasoning that though they all have different learning abilities, animals are intelligent beings. “It’s usually assumed that cattle are not capable of controlling defecation or urination,” said Jan Langbein, one of the scientists, in a press release. “Cattle are quite clever, and they can learn a lot. Why shouldn’t they be able to learn how to use a toilet?”
Langbein is from the Institute of Behavioural Physiology in Dummerstorf, Germany, which teamed up with Germany’s National Institute for Animal Health, and the University of Auckland in New Zealand to conduct the study, for which they toilet-trained 16 calves. The little learners were set up with a specially built training latrine, a small pen with green walls and a green astroturf floor, and over various training sessions learned to use that “correct voiding location” at the necessary time. The sessions involved training them both to use the latrine, and to respond to their internal urination cues so that they could voluntarily suppress their urinary urges when not at the toilet.
Throughout the training, calves were rewarded for correct behaviors with sweet food treats and punished for urinating outside of the latrine. “As a punishment, we first used in-ear headphones and we played a very nasty sound whenever they urinated outside,” Langbein said. “But they didn’t care. Ultimately, a splash of water worked well as a gentle deterrent.”
The team reports that within 10 to 15 sessions, 11 of the 16 calves were trained. Lindsay Matthews, the researcher from the University of Auckland, who has academic experience in cattle learning, says the fastest calves learned as fast as would the quickest human toddlers, and “most calves were faster than the average child.” He is also confident that, with more reward-based training, they’d quite easily retain the information long term. (And, that farmers could teach older cows).
Meghan Davis, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future and a trained veterinarian whose work focuses on the effects of animal agriculture on human health (and who was not involved in the study), says via email that she can believe the training system works. “I’ve found cows to be responsive to training in other situations, so I think it is possible,” she says.
The study proposes that “clever cattle can help in resolving the climate killer conundrum,” and notes a Dutch report that found that capturing 80% of cow urine could lead to a 56% reduction in ammonia emissions. Air pollution aside, ammonia is also harmful to biological ecosystems; it can acidify land and water, causing nutrient and biodiversity imbalances, and killing plants and animals.
Next, the study team plans to move training away from the experimental cow loo setup and to real cattle housing and outdoor farming systems. (And, perhaps to repeat the study with poop.) To Davis, the challenge will be managing toilet training sustainably on a larger scale, and being able to compare farms that do it with farms that don’t to clearly assess its usefulness.
There are also questions about the time commitment for farmers, and how much they would want to dedicate to potty training their livestock. Matthews says that there would need to be ways of automating the conditioning process. Davis agrees, adding that economic incentives could also motivate farmers to implement the training.
Langbein is optimistic. “In a few years,” he hopes, per a statement, “all cows will go to a toilet.”
Update: We’ve updated this article with quotes from Matthews about the project, and removed references to MooLoo, which is no longer part of the branding.